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Turkish Democracy Gives Rise to Turkish Power

International attention to Turkey’s recent election reflects Ankara’s rising role not only in the Arab Spring but as a newly powerful democracy with broad regional influence.

(Selçuk, Turkey) It was election day, June 12, in this small town in Turkey’s heavily secular far west region. Opposition to the governing Justice and Development Party, the Islamic-oriented AKP, runs strong. The manager of the small hotel shook his head. “I’ve been a life-long supporter of the CHP [the main secular opposition party]. My whole family has. But how could I not vote for the AKP?  Because they’re doing the best thing for this country.”    

In the small town square that night, a spirited celebration cheered AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s televised “balcony speech,” and fireworks burst above the trees. The next morning, I asked a middle-aged man drinking coffee in a Selçuk café – who also said he had always supported the CHP – what would have been different in the last decade if the AKP had not been in power.  “We wouldn’t have had the economic gains," he said. Unlike the CHP, the AKP “are courageous.”  

Less than 48 hours after the elections, a columnist in one of Turkey’s generally pro-government dailies wrote “an era has officially ended. The dictatorship of the elites has been destroyed.”   

It’s certainly possible that some time in the future the AKP’s almost 50% victory this year, its third and highest electoral win since coming to power in 2002, will be seen as consolidating a new and different kind of Turkish elite, but so far the prospects seem far brighter than that. In fact, Turkish democracy – which this year achieved an impressive 87% voter participation rate – appears far more vibrant, representative and creative than any of our flawed, struggling examples with which we in the U.S. may be more familiar.    

Turkey in the Neighborhood

As Richard Falk and Hilal Elver  noted in al-Jazeera, this year marked the “first time since Kemal Ataturk founded the republic that such widespread international interest was aroused by Turkey's elections.” Certainly some of that immediate focus was rooted in the rapidly escalating influence of Turkey in the electrifying but dangerous transformations underway in this year’s Arab Spring. Writing in the  New York Times  two weeks before the elections, the great Middle East journalist Anthony Shadid traced Turkey’s indigenous connection – contemporary and from its Ottoman legacy – to the revolutionary transformations underway in neighboring Arab countries.


    “As the Arab world beyond the [Turkish] border struggles with the inspirations and traumas of its revolution – a new notion of citizenship colliding with the smaller claims of piety, sect and clan – something else is percolating along the old routes of that empire, which spanned three continents and lasted six centuries before Ataturk brought it to an end in 1923 with self-conscious revolutionary zeal. It is probably too early to define identities emerging in those locales. But something bigger than its parts is at work along imperial connections that were bent but never broken by decades of colonialism and the cold war. The links are the stuff of land, culture, history, architecture, memory and imagination that remains the realm of scholarship and daily lives…”  

Those links between Turkey and the Arab world are also the stuff of regional power relations.  Since the end of World War II, and throughout the Cold War, U.S. domination of the Middle East has remained a constant. Soviet influence rose and fell in a few countries, the Non-Aligned Movement was long led from Egypt, but overall Washington’s supremacy remained intact.   

Regional powers, of course, could and did vie with the global hegemon as well as with each other. It was long understood that any Middle Eastern state aspiring to such a position had to start with three basic indigenous requirements: oil for wealth, size of land and population, and water. And for generations only two countries possessed all three: Iraq and Iran.  Their conflicts, up to and including the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s with its one million-plus casualties that decimated both sides, reflected their competing claims to regional influence. Similarly, the decades of U.S. efforts to undermine both countries’ potential power, either through neo-colonial sponsorship and embrace or through threatened or direct military attack, were rooted in Washington’s determination to eliminate any serious challenge to its own dominion.  

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